The worse it gets, as I wade and stumble through the Great Dismal Swamp, the better I understand its history as a place of refuge. Each ripping thorn and sucking mudhole makes it clearer. It was the dense, tangled hostility of the swamp and its enormous size that enabled hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of escaped slaves to live here in freedom.
We don’t know much about them, but thanks to the archaeologist hacking through the mire ahead of me, we know they were out here, subsisting in hidden communities, and using almost nothing from the outside world until the 19th century. The Dismal Swamp covered great tracts of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina, and its vegetation was far too thick for horses or canoes. In the early 1600s, Native Americans fleeing the colonial frontier took refuge here, and they were soon joined by fugitive slaves, and probably some whites escaping indentured servitude or hiding from the law. From about 1680 to the Civil War, it appears that the swamp communities were dominated by Africans and African-Americans.
Thigh deep in muddy water, wearing Levis and hiking boots rather than waterproof waders like me, Dan Sayers stops to light a cigarette. He’s a historical archaeologist and chair of the anthropology department at American University in Washington, D.C., but he looks more like an outlaw country singer. Long-haired and bearded, 43 years old, he habitually wears a battered straw cowboy hat and a pair of Waylon Jennings-style sunglasses. Sayers is a Marxist and a vegan who smokes nearly two packs a day and keeps himself revved up on Monster Energy drinks until it’s time to crack a beer.
“I was such a dumb-ass,” he says. “I was looking for hills, hummocks, high ground because that’s what I’d read in the documents: ‘Runaway slaves living on hills….’ I had never set foot in a swamp before. I wasted so much time. Finally, someone asked me if I’d been to the islands in North Carolina. Islands! That was the word I’d been missing.”
The Great Dismal Swamp, now reduced by draining and development, is managed as a federal wildlife refuge. The once-notorious panthers are gone, but bears, birds, deer and amphibians are still abundant. So are venomous snakes and biting insects. In the awful heat and humidity of summer, Sayers assures me, the swamp teems with water moccasins and rattlesnakes. The mosquitoes get so thick that they can blur the outlines of a person standing 12 feet away.
In early 2004, one of the refuge biologists strapped on his waders and brought Sayers to the place we’re going, a 20-acre island occasionally visited by hunters, but completely unknown to historians and archaeologists. Before Sayers, no archaeology had been done in the swamp’s interior, mainly because conditions were so challenging. One research party got lost so many times that it gave up.
When you’ve been toiling through the sucking ooze, with submerged roots and branches grabbing at your ankles, dry solid ground feels almost miraculous. We step onto the shore of a large, flat, sun-dappled island carpeted with fallen leaves. Walking toward its center, the underbrush disappears, and we enter a parklike clearing shaded by a few hardwoods and pines.
“I’ll never forget seeing this place for the first time,” recalls Sayers. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I never dreamed of finding a 20-acre island, and I knew instantly it was livable. Sure enough, you can’t put a shovel in the ground anywhere on this island without finding something.”
He has named his excavation areas—the Grotto, the Crest, North Plateau and so on—but he won’t name the island itself. In his academic papers and his 2014 book, A Desolate Place for a Defiant People, Sayers refers to it as the “nameless site.” “I don’t want to put a false name on it,” he explains. “I’m hoping to find out what the people who lived here called this place.” As he sifts the earth they trod, finding the soil footprints of their cabins and tiny fragments of their tools, weapons and white clay pipes, he feels a profound admiration for them, and this stems in part from his Marxism.
“These people performed a critique of a brutal capitalistic enslavement system, and they rejected it completely. They risked everything to live in a more just and equitable way, and they were successful for ten generations. One of them, a man named Charlie, was interviewed later in Canada. He said that all labor was communal here. That’s how it would have been in an African village.”
Wherever Africans were enslaved in the world, there were runaways who escaped permanently and lived in free independent settlements. These people and their descendants are known as “maroons.” The term probably comes from the Spanish cimarrón, meaning feral livestock, fugitive slave or something wild and defiant.
Marronage, the process of extricating oneself from slavery, took place all over Latin America and the Caribbean, in the slave islands of the Indian Ocean, in Angola and other parts of Africa. But until recently, the idea that maroons also existed in North America has been rejected by most historians.
“In 2004, when I started talking about large, permanent maroon settlements in the Great Dismal Swamp, most scholars thought I was nuts,” says Sayers. “They thought in terms of runaways, who might hide in the woods or swamps for a while until they got caught, or who might make it to freedom on the Underground Railroad, with the help of Quakers and abolitionists.”
By downplaying American marronage, and valorizing white involvement in the Underground Railroad, historians have shown a racial bias, in Sayers’ opinion, a reluctance to acknowledge the strength of black resistance and initiative. They’ve also revealed the shortcomings of their methods: “Historians are limited to source documents. When it comes to maroons, there isn’t that much on paper. But that doesn’t mean their story should be ignored or overlooked. As archaeologists, we can read it in the ground.”